Adjusting an upper-thigh grazing hem, breasts barely contained by a lace-up bodice, the fit model's hands come to rest on a waist that, via two strategic cut-outs, is also bare. The effect is walking — or, in this moment, pivoting — sex. Appraising the 'test hair,' an early aughts prom-style updo, the designer's lips form a tight line. We're five days out from her eponymous label's latest fashion week showcase, and Kim Shui is unsure.
"I know," ventures collaborator Kuschan Jafarian, "You don't know if it works because your looks are-"
"Slutty," Shui interjects. "This collection is straight-up whore."
"Slut," "whore" and "thot" are all words regularly employed to denigrate women, though the 29-year-old designer more frequently offers them as adjectives for her creations. This season (Spring 2020), she adds, must be "sluttier for the summertime." Shui's preferred vocabulary is part-reclamation, part-cheeky self-analysis and primarily a defense mechanism, because after all, nothing extracts venom from future critique like saying it yourself first. The outfit currently pinned and prodded before us is that which could once only pass post-11 p.m. in the Meatpacking District, but now, Shui believes, bridges the gap between "hot and cool."
"I feel like there was a point where wearing a super tight body-con dress was so silly. But my stuff is like, 'You're going to 1 Oak but you're not really going to 1 Oak,'" she laughs. "I mean obviously, the guys are going to think it's hot but my real goal was to make the woman wearing it to feel hot."
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Other industries have long-since learned sex sells, but it was the apparent mutual exclusivity of fashion and femininity that was a personal gripe for Shui. Upon graduating from economics school, Shui entered into a design degree at Central Saint Martins with a Rick Owens devotion and "fear of color" that resulted in consistently obscuring her five-foot frame in swathes of draping black fabric. Naturally, Shui thought pursuing her own brand would mean subscribing to the same aesthetic and, thus, a destiny of dressing hyper-minimalists.
Then came Kylie. After leaving London for New York, Shui appreciated the city's "openness" — something that began to reflect in her own work. Soon, Shui's designs were embraced by tastemaking boutique V Files, who invited the newcomer to appear in its 2016 NYFW show. In the front row appeared a Kim Shui original: a skin-tight, lace bodysuit, worn by then-19-year-old reality star, Kylie Jenner. Between the vinyl-faux fur outerwear and Jenner's sheer onesie, Shui arrived with a gusto that saw her quickly declared a "designer to watch." It didn't matter whether Shui's direction was derived from a crystal ball-esque vision for the market's shift or just a creative coincidence, the verdict was in: Kim Shui Studios had the right clothes at the right time.
The brand is a team effort. Shui leans heavily on the opinions of her collaborators, flicking photos off in group texts and reading aloud the responses. It's a strategy that not only increases her productivity, but also amplifies her confidence to make her increasingly impervious to bad reviews.
"I used to be so competitive but then I realized that everyone's path is different. I always try to aim 10 times higher than what I can do. I don't try to think of what happens after I get recognition, I just try to focus on what's next. I still can't say that I've made it."
But 'made it', Shui has. This year, she hit Forbes's 30 Under 30 list. E! will follow the designer in the lead-up to her show this fashion week — for which she'll be collaborating with FitBit. The number of A-Listers seeking out Shui's designs is ever-growing. There was Gigi Hadid at Coachella and Halsey at the MTV VMAs last month ("Custom @kimshuistudio my favorite-est thing ever," the latter wrote on Instagram). Anastasia "Stassiebaby" Karanikolaou reached out to Shui on Instagram directly. A female rap megastar with the song of summer '19 reached out to pull clothes ("Kim responded: 'Who's that?'" Jafarian remembers). Another pop supernova wanted custom for her upcoming tour — any designer's dream job — but Shui didn't have the energy. And then there's Jenner, who recently made headlines by wearing matching Shui with her baby, Stormi, which she bought directly from the site.
"They ordered two of the same dress," Shui explains. "They did the recreation for the baby. She bought a bunch of other stuff, she bought some pants and tops and stuff and I was like, 'That's so cool.'"
But the increased attention has come at a high cost. When she set out, Shui aimed to keep her price point as low as possible, but it didn't help that within days of Jenner's appearance in Shui, fast-fashion giant Fashion Nova had created an exact replica for less than a quarter of the price of the designer's original version.
"I had someone call me out because they thought my $300 dollar dress was so expensive. They made a point of saying, 'Why would I buy yours when I could just get the Fashion Nova one?' I know who's making my garments...my materials are high-end. There are so many other factors that go into pricing that I don't think the public understands."
It was frustrating, yes, but what took Shui most by surprise was the cancel culture-facilitated outrage from friends and fans; her Instagram inbox became a barrage of screenshots of the offending dress ("I said, 'Thank you for sending,' but at the same time I was just like, 'Let's focus on the positive stuff?'"). Then again, it wasn't the first time Shui had found herself confronted by the court of public opinion. Born in the U.S. and raised in Italy, Shui makes a point of referencing her Chinese heritage throughout her designs, which in 2019, has presented its own issues.
"'Can white people wear this?'" Shui recalls reading on an Instagram post of a Qipao-inspired dress. "I even got a comment saying it was cultural appropriation when an Asian girl was wearing it; I was like, 'Do they know I'm Chinese?' It's a celebration — not a costume or mockery. People are not trying to appropriate something, they appreciate the style. I'll always label a dress like 'Qipao dress' or 'Cheongsam dress,' because I've seen Reformation label it 'mock-neck dress.' I try to combat that."
"Now everyone is just scared on Instagram," she continues, referencing accounts that document industry faux pas. "I think it's just too negative and it's extremely policing. It's ruining lives. It could be a platform to uplift people."
Still, Shui doesn't shy away, or feel the effects of any stigma, from her affiliation with Instagram. Instead, she's flattered to be identified alongside the likes of I Am Gia and Danielle Guizio as an 'IG Brand.' "It's a blessing that someone can see my dress on Kylie Jenner and come straight to my site," she notes. While the company's visibility hasn't rendered its runway shows redundant — the designer believes the fashion week show to be a big factor in Kim Shui Studios retaining its "downtown cool" — but credits the platform for connecting her with the consumer her clothes flatter best: the curvy girl.
"I feel like a couple years ago, in order to be hot and trendy, you had to be so thin...I don't want to say that I have a specific type of body that I want in my clothes, because I genuinely don't discriminate, but my muses for my clothes are full figures," Shui explains.
"I try to make it so that my clothes are good on every type of body — I want every kind of girl to be able to see themselves in my stuff. I've just always really liked the idea of being sexy, and runway was never sexy to me....People want to see full-bodied, healthy women in clothes and on the runway."
While Shui and company discuss conceptual tweaks for the show, the model enjoys a quiet, touch-free moment to herself. Diamante-laden 'K' earrings swinging, she twists before her reflection — admiring from all angles. "I love this," she mouths to herself.
Homepage photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows